I recently read NPR’s show This American Life is the most listened to radio show on the air in the United States. Consequently, I believe at least a few people have heard the show about having someone’s back and what it means to have a support network.
Last weekend celebrated Mid-Autumn Festival in Taiwan, known as 中秋節 or Moon Festival. If you are Taiwanese this three-day weekend means traveling back to celebrate eating with your family, and if you are an English teacher it means going on a longer trip that wouldn’t be possible on a normal two-day weekend.
I loved Moon Festival last year. I was invited to a Taiwanese BBQ by a new friend and spent the afternoon and evening eating myself silly on all sorts of grilled delicacies with her family. The night was spent staring at the full moon from the road, and playing with fireworks that were purchased in the general store down the road.
My Chinese teacher told me the Taiwanese tradition of barbecuing over this festival is based upon the success of a soy sauce advertising campaign in the 1980s. I found it fascinating that over the past thirty years a brand of soy sauce could change the way a population celebrates a traditional Chinese holiday.
This year, since I had experienced the family celebrations of Taiwanese Moon Festival I thought I would head out of town and go camping as an homage to the classic American Labor Day camping trip. I wanted my two closest friends to accompany me in this venture, the idea was to take a train to an ecological park near mountains and scooter around to find the best camping spot.
As you may have guessed this didn’t happen, my friends didn’t have my back in this case. One told me reticently she had already agreed to go with her yoga group and invited me along. The other made plans weeks in advance with me looking at train time tables and hostels, and then on the Friday night we were supposed to leave town unexpectedly backed out.
I was surprised how much that hurt. As Barry Schwartz from TED talks will tell you, “The key to happiness is low expectations.” But these are my best friends I am talking about, my inner circle so maybe I am doing this friendship thing wrong. I understand it was mostly logistical misunderstandings, but it stung because I got this impression I had been overlooked in favor of a better offer.
It is one thing to be stood up by a prospective love interest, it is another thing to be stood up by close friends. My point being, if I can’t have expectations of close friends then I can’t have expectations of anyone. I can only expect them to act selfishly, which is a saddening thought. I don’t expect everyone to be there all the time; I do expect someone to be there sometimes.
So, what did I do after my dear friends left me for dead? I joined another group of friends of course, a group that planned to climb a mountain with only a few acquaintances and many strangers. It was an interesting mix of crazy Eastern European men and Taiwanese women cram school teachers. We set off late to the mountain on Sunday morning and as soon as we arrived it started pouring rain, this continued for another two hours as we huddled in an aboriginal village near the trailhead.
The good news was my biking friend who had invited me to bike to Beidawu Shan 北大武山 was also discovered huddling in the same village so I got to spend a few hours catching up with him about his impending trip to Brazil. As the rain thundered down monsoon-style, the aboriginal lady at the open air restaurant offered to let us sit in her living room until the rain stopped and we spent some time talking and looking at wedding photos in her home. A touching example of Taiwanese hospitality, not only towards foreigners but to each other. (See photo at the top.)
It was getting dark and it was looking unpromising as a damp destination to spend the night, so the travel group improvised by heading to a nearby Sihjhongsi Hot Springs. We ate a banquet of food in town and then camped out in a park near the public pools. The next morning after very little sleep, the group was looking a bit ragged and we had to pick between visiting a waterfall or the beaches of Kenting that were not far from the hot springs.
So we once more got on our scooters and rode to the beach to relax for the afternoon. On the way home Monday evening we stopped by a Buddhist restaurant and were served seven courses of delicious vegetarian food while overlooking the water during the sunset. It was an ideal ending to a weekend of improvisation.